Monday, September 15, 2014

A Dangerous Opinion

Rav Shmuel Kamentesky
I have profound respect for Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. He is the founding and current Rosh HaYeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia – popularly known as ‘Philly’. Philly is (for all intents and purposes) Lakewood’s high school. It is one of the most prestigious Yeshivos in the country. He is also a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes.

But Rav Shmuel (as Rav Kamenetsky is affectionately called by his Talmidim and admirers) has an even greater attribute than those impressive credentials. He is the son of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ZTL - a certifiable Gadol whose whose common sense approach to Judaism made him one of my heroes. Which makes a recent comment by Rav Shmuel so perplexing. I cannot image his father making such a statement. From the Forward:
“I see vaccinations as the problem,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky told the Baltimore Jewish Times in a story published in late August. “It’s a hoax. Even the Salk [polio] vaccine is a hoax. It’s just big business.”
I’m sorry to say this but Rav Shmuel’s statement is breathtakingly shocking. To say that  polio vaccine is a hoax in an era where that disease has been virtually eradicated form the civilized world – precisely because of the public programs of mass vaccinations is simply incredulous.

Now Rav Shmuel certainly has a right to his opinion. And as mentioned above, he is a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes. Does this mean that  his statement should be seen as Daas Torah? In my view the answer is, absolutely not. This is an opinion of an individual who is in my view basically uninformed about the matter. Dangerously so. Can anyone imagine if all vaccinations were to be suspended in this country, what would happen? Dreaded childhood diseases would likely return with a vengeance.

Rav Shmuel made his statement in the context of a parent who was refused entry into a day school in Baltimore because she refused a vaccination regimen for her son. From the Baltimore Jewish Times:
R.B. encountered significant difficulties when she claimed a religious exemption at a local boys’ day school. Before her son began school, she contacted someone at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as the state attorney general’s office, to inquire about Maryland’s laws regarding religious exemptions.
“They said that the school could not refuse to accept a religious exemption,” she related. “But then school started and the nurse called. She said the school didn’t accept religious exemptions…
R.B. reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, whose wife, Temi, speaks out against vaccinating children. The rabbi wrote a letter on R.B.’s behalf, leading to her son’s principal relenting and apologizing.
Now I can understand advocating for a parent whose child has been denied entry into a school because they refused to vaccinate their child. Although I am in favor of vaccinating children against dreaded childhood and other diseases, there is an argument to make with respect respect to the right of a parent to refuse to vaccinate their child, foolish though they may be. As long as an un-vaccinated child is not a danger to anyone, he should be allowed in the school. The fact that everyone else in the school is vaccinated, means that should an un-vaccinated child contract a disease, the other children will likely be better protected thorough their vacinations.

I should add that a parent that successfully avoids vaccinating their child may cause others to do the same. And the result can easily be what happened to Boro Park in 2013 (as noted below).

But Rav Shumel’s comments with respect to the vaccinations themselves are unnecessary to achieve that goal. And as I said a very dangerous thing for him to say. Because when Rav Shmuel speaks… a lot of people listen. Some may very well see statements like this as Daas Torah… a decisions from which they may not budge.

Making Rav Shmuel’s comments even stranger is how he supports his views with the following statement:
“There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all,” said the rabbi. 
I don’t know who this doctor is, but in my view he ought to have his medical license revoked.

To Agudah’s credit, they have somewhat disavowed Rav Shmuel’s statement by saying that Agudah  has not taken a position on this. But in my view, they should have taken a position on it – in opposition to Rav Shmuel’s statements.  Because the last time a community decided to avoid vaccinations the following happened:
A 2013 measles outbreak that sickened dozens in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Boro Park and Williamsburg was caused, in part, by ultra-Orthodox parents who had refused to vaccinate their children, according to an alert issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Like I said, Rav Shmuel is entitled to his opinion. And as a rabbinic leader who is a Talmid Chacham with a lifetime of hard work and achievement on behalf the Jewish community - he is certainly entitled to respect.  But in my view - clearly - his opinion on this issue is not Daas Torah by any stretch of the imagination.

I agree with Rabbi Moshe Tendler completely. Again, from the Forward:
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior faculty member at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and an expert on bioethics, said that some rabbinic sources argue that rabbis should not make medical decisions. “This is an area in which medicine has made such tremendous progress for the benefit of humanity,” Tendler said. “I believe that there may very well be rabbis who agree with Kamenetsky, but they are not speaking under their authority as rabbis, they are speaking simply as uninformed laymen. “I’m hoping that Rabbi Kamenetsky was misquoted,” Tendler said.
I too hope that Rav Shmuel was misquoted. Or at least taken out of context.  But based on the quotes above, it is hard to imagine a context that would make any sense.

Please note.  Posts like this can and often do generate nasty comments about the people mentioned therein. I therefore ask all those who wish to comment on this issue - not to denigrate Rav Shmuel in any way. He is a rabbinic leader that deserves our respect. One can disagree with him even strongly as I do, but it should be done respectfully. Any comment even remotely disparaging will be deleted in its entirety.